In praise of the Oxford comma, and of Ayn Rand

by Stephen Tall on June 30, 2011

Via David Allan Green and Galleycat comes the earth-shattering news that, according to my colleagues along the corridor in the University’s public affairs department, writers should, “as a general rule,” avoid using the Oxford comma.

What is the ‘Oxford comma?’, I hear (a handful of) you cry. Here I turn to Wikipedia: the ‘Oxford comma’ or the ‘serial comma’ “is the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items”.

Most famously, it avoids the potential confusion by the apparently apocryphal (such a shame: I’d always believed it was genuine) book dedication:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Or there’s the other example cited:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

What I’d not previously come across, til gawd-bless-it Wiki introduced me to it, was the potential for the Oxford comma to create confusion, as in:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

How to avoid such inclarity? Well, here’s the style advice:

This ambiguity does not exist under style recommendations that recommend that appositives be enclosed in parentheses, as in:
To my mother (Ayn Rand) and God

Though my ‘Oxford comma’ preference would be:

To my mother (Ayn Rand), and God

So, for anyone left in doubt, here’s the summary:

  • The list x, y and z is unambiguous if y and z cannot be read as in apposition to x.
  • Equally, x, y, and z is unambiguous if y cannot be read as in apposition to x.
  • If neither y nor y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are unambiguous; but if y or y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are ambiguous.
  • x and y and z is unambiguous.
  • Everyone clear?

    And if all that was too much for you here’s a short musical interlude… the song ‘Oxford comma’ by Vampire Weekend, directed (intriguingly) by The IT Crowd‘s Richard Ayoade:


    (Available on YouTube here.)

    5 comments

    New post: In praise of the Oxford comma, and of Ayn Rand http://bit.ly/mFNICC

    by Stephen Tall on June 30, 2011 at 8:16 am. Reply #

    RT @stephentall: New post: In praise of the Oxford comma, and of Ayn Rand http://bit.ly/mFNICC

    by Christopher Wilson on June 30, 2011 at 8:21 am. Reply #

    […] In praise of the Oxford comma, and of Ayn Rand by Stephen Tall on The Collected Stephen Tall. Three Oxford greats: the university, the comma, and […]

    by Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #228 on July 3, 2011 at 6:02 pm. Reply #

    Wait! You got me confused there. I think I can consider myself who uses Oxford comma as often. So “To my mother (Ayn Rand) and God” is the correct one and “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God” is wrong? Btw, cool video!

    by Aliyah@scrubshopworldwide.com on July 5, 2011 at 6:30 am. Reply #

    […] I learnt from Stephen Tall what an Oxford Comma is – turns out I’ve been using them all the time. […]

    by Random Thoughts 6: Reagan, wisdom and commas « Strange Thoughts on July 5, 2011 at 11:24 pm. Reply #

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